By Erick Johnson
Under clear blue skies, hundreds of proud and faithful Roosevelt alumni on Saturday, September 19, flooded the leafy campus of the storied but closed school building to dedicate a historic Indiana Landmarks marker on the site.
It was morning full of nostalgia as nearly 200 Roosevelt alumni from various graduating classes came together wearing their school’s black and gold colors to celebrate their alma mater’s latest achievement. To die-hard Roosevelt alumni, the historical marker boosted efforts to keep Roosevelt’s legacy alive through future generations and renewed hope in saving the crumbling building from destruction.
Before the dedication ceremony began, Roosevelt alumni gazed at numerous pictures of athletic champions and memorabilia on tables that lined the cracked sidewalks of a shuttered school that was built only for Blacks during Gary’s segregated past. There was also a picture of civil rights leader and Mary McCleod Bethune during her visit to the school in 1947.
Dignitaries turned out for the dedication, including former Mayor Thomas Barnes and Gary Councilmen William Godwin and Linda Barnes-Caldwell. Lake County Commissioner Charlie Brown also attended the event along with Congressman-elect Frank Mvran, Jr., who will replace longtime Congressman Pete Visclosky in the First Congressional District.
They and Roosevelt alumni sat down in folding chairs spaced six apart in front of Roosevelt’s majestic façade, where they began the ceremony singing James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black Nation Anthem.
Then came the speeches.
“I speak for all students who graduated from these hallowed halls,” said Larry Davis, a 1964 graduate and vice president of the National Roosevelt Alumni Association. “Because of its storied history, this place matters and deserves to be memorialized. This place matters.”
Mayor Jerome Prince, whose parents graduated from Roosevelt, said “although I did not attend Roosevelt High School like many of you here, I certainly understand the importance and significance of the history of that. Like many of you, we all have some connection to Roosevelt, whether we attended or not.”
Former mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who graduated as the valedictorian of her class in 1978, said “When I walked through the door for the first time, there was a clear sense of history, of what it meant.”
One powerful speaker and Roosevelt alumna, Pauline Tatum, is the granddaughter of H. Theo Tatum, who served as Roosevelt’s principal for 30 years.
Pauline urged alumni to preserve Roosevelt’s legacy through activism.
“We have to continue the narrative of this institution because our future generation rely on storytelling, education and hope,” she said.
Tatum also recalled one experience her grandfather had before he took the helm at Roosevelt.
“While my grandfather was principal at East Pulaski and promoted to Gary Roosevelt High School, Superintendent [William] Wirt told him the following: All I want you to do is keep these Negroes quiet, His response? No.
“He understood at that time he had a target on his back,” Tatum added.
The highlight of the ceremony was the unveiling of the marker. Cheers and applause erupted after a black and gold cover was removed from the structure. Organizers said Roosevelt alumni from 15 various classes pledge $100 each to help pay for the marker along with a grant from the Indiana Historical Landmarks. Eight feet tall, the marker sits close to the sidewalk near 25th Avenue. It tells the story of how Roosevelt was created during the era of segregation.
In 1927, 600 white students from Emerson High School walked out to protest after 18 Black students attended class. The boycott lasted for days before the school district decided to keep its schools segregated. In 1930, the present colonial revival building was built after officials approved to appropriate $600,000 for the structure. The building included an auditorium, swimming pool, two gyms and 24 classrooms.
According to a document at the ceremony, in 1946, the west wing of the building opened at a cost of $330,000.
Roosevelt would produce many distinguished alumni in sports, business, politics and entertainment. The famous Jackson 5, who lived around the corner, performed at a talent show in the building’s auditorium before they hit it big.
In 2012, a small plaque was placed on the wall near the entrance of the building after it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2019, the historic building was closed after pipes burst during frigid temperatures. Over 500 students were forced to attend classes at Gary Area Career Center. This year, the Indiana Board of Education voted to close after officials said the aging building had become too expensive to renovate and reopened. In July, Roosevelt graduated its final class during a virtual ceremony.
The state-controlled Gary Community School Corporation is searching for a buyer for the building.